Pleasure, Pain & Patriarchal Power: Could there be an elephant in the (bed)room?

Firting to Hurting
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One of the books that I’m reading at the moment is a collection of essays titled Freedom Fallacy: The Limits of Liberal Feminism, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in contemporary feminist issues. Featuring 17 short essays written by academics from across the globe, it’s the kind of book that you can dip in and out of and feel that you’ve learned something important from each time that you do. Over the weekend I delved into Laura Tarzia’s chapter on sexuality, which I’d been looking forward to since my last engagement with the book a couple of weeks ago. Focused on the complex relationship between sexual violence against women and female sexual desire, Tarzia’s chapter raises far more questions than it can possibly answer in a mere nine pages. And I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.

When discussing the relationship between female sexual pleasure and violence in the past I’ve found myself feeling worried that challenging the healthiness of desires that exist outside of my personal experience will lead me to come across as prudish, ignorant, and judgemental of others; or worse, non-feminist. After reading more about it, though, I’ve realised that my concerns aren’t as naive or misplaced as I feared. As Tarzia states, there is a disparity between liberal feminism’s ongoing fight to eradicate sexual violence against women, and its acceptance of degrading sexual practices and experiences as long as they are ‘chosen’ and not unwillingly imposed. This is, of course, an incredibly complex subject to broach, but I strongly believe that it deserves our attention.

The idea that degrading sexual or sex-related experiences can be consented to by women within a patriarchal society is, without doubt, highly paradoxical, and can be further explored when considered in relation to the porn and glamour industries. During a discussion about the proposed discontinuation of Page 3 in The Sun newspaper a few years ago, my partner at the time argued that because the models had chosen to work within the glamour industry their portrayal in the feature wasn’t sexist or degrading. Scrapping Page 3 altogether, he suggested, would pose worrying censorship issues for our publishing industry.

It’s hard to ignore the possibility that our sexual fantasies, behaviours and choices may have been subject to patriarchal influence.

This is an argument that we also often hear in regard to women working within the porn industry and those performing any other work that involves ‘chosen’ objectification or degradation (recent debates surrounding Forumla One’s ‘grid girl’ ban, for example, demonstrate the extent to which the notion of consent in regard to women’s bodies remains a highly contentious issue.) What my partner at the time failed to perceive is the blurry distinction that exists between freedom of expression within the media and the normalised exploitation of women’s bodies (which some of us do willingly participate in). The average annual wage that Page 3 models were able to earn, for example, was not only extremely unstable (ranging from £12000 for beginners to £1M for the very successful), but incredibly modest in comparison to the huge annual profits that their naked bodies helped to rake in for The Sun.

I have personally always been more interested in the reasons behind the choices that women make about their bodies than the fact that they have been granted the autonomy to ‘choose’ in the first place. When we consider the immense power that traditional gender ideals have historically had over women’s lives in both the public and private spheres, it’s hard to ignore the possibility, as Tarzia highlights, that our sexual fantasies, behaviours and choices may have been subject to patriarchal influence. Whether or not a potentially degrading sexual or sex-related experience has been chosen by a woman, in a society founded on masculine ideology the choices that we as women make about our bodies may not always be as freely stumbled upon or empowering as we believe them to be.

In terms of consensual violence against women, BDSM and other such sexual sub-cultures are vital to consider. Existing across gender distinctions and binaries, these sexual practices facilitate the sexual subordination and dominance of both women and men alike. So as well as there being women who desire sexual violence to be inflicted upon them, there are also those who prefer to inflict pain upon their partners. There are also, of course, men within the BDSM and fetish community who desire to be sexually dominated by women, either because they seek to express characteristics that are discouraged in their professional and domestic lives, or because they enjoy seeing women who are routinely disempowered in society take on a different ‘role,’ so to speak. What is evident in all of this is that our sexual preferences and transgressions can be reflective of the power dynamics at play within both our public and private lives.

In a society founded on masculine ideology, the choices that we as women make about our bodies may not always be as freely stumbled upon or empowering as we believe them to be.

Considering also the performative aspect of traditional gender distinctions (within which men play the dominant role), and how this relates to perceptions of power in society, our sexual fantasies and behaviours can be seen to represent far more than simply a gateway to pleasure. In a society which both reveres and rewards men who display (or perform) behaviours that are considered ‘masculine,’ such as sexual prowess, aggression and dominance, it’s possible to see how women (traditionally perceived as less powerful) may be conditioned to both encourage and feel attracted to male violence.

Across the globe women’s bodies are publicly exploited and degraded on a regular basis. And whether it be through magazines, TV shows, films or pornography, we are all of us exposed every day to images that mirror a fundamentally masculine notion of sexuality. Bearing this in mind, an important question to ask is whether exposure to images and behaviours that openly degrade and objectify women has led us to embody and accept as our own sexual fantasies and beliefs that are rooted in misogyny.

I do not pretend to have any clear or definite answers to the questions raised in this article, nor have I intended to cast judgement or shame upon those who identify with the sexual desires and practices alluded to. One thing I am certain of, though, is that difficult and paradoxical as the notion of consent is when it comes to sexual violence and degradation, it is an issue that deserves our attention.


Standing Up for Singledom

The unmarried goddess Ishtar – photo credit: neilalderney123 via / CC BY-NC

Like most, if not all, people I know, I was raised to believe that being in a loving committed relationship is something that I should not only want, but actively seek out. And, like everyone I know, I have experienced a great deal of joy and pain in both the pursuit and attainment of romantic love. A few years ago I entered into my first serious relationship with someone I cared deeply about. However, like many couples I’ve known over the years, our love didn’t last,  and just four years after getting married we decided to break up.

Before entering into this partnership I had been single for several years, and I was very independent as a result. With only myself to think about, I did whatever I wanted whenever I liked, and enjoyed spending time with whoever I pleased. But rather than appreciating the independence that being single afforded me, all I could think about at the time, and all I wanted in fact, was to be somebody’s girlfriend.

Part of the problem with being single is that we’re constantly reminded how undesirable it is. And this is especially true if you happen to be female: if you’re a single woman having sex then you’re likely to be thought of as a slut, a sexual conquest, or a ‘home wrecker.’ And if you’re not, the chances are you’ll be perceived as sad and lonely, or labelled a frigid spinster (God forbid you’re a cat-lover too!) One has only to think of popular films and TV shows like Bridget Jones’s Diary, Love Actually, How to be Single, and Sex and the City to realise just how pervasive these stereotypes are.

Everywhere I turn there seems to be some hint to the idea that single people are not as happy or content as those lucky souls who have found ‘the one.’

Some might argue that single women are beginning to be portrayed in a more positive light in the media. And whilst this is true, it’s also fair to say that there’s still a lot of work to be done. Bar a few examples, including (suprisingly) the 2012 Disney Pixar film, Brave, in which teenage Princess Merida saves herself from being married off against her will, the ‘damsel in distress’ and ‘happy ever after’ tropes that we’re all so familiar with are, unfortunately, still very much the norm.

However, the perceived undesirability of singledom isn’t only strengthened through our engagement with films, TV shows and books; it’s also reinforced by certain friends and family members who persist in asking whenever they see us whether we’re seeing anyone yet. In fact, everywhere I turn there seems to be some hint to the idea that single people are not as happy or content as those lucky souls who have found ‘the one.’

But being single isn’t always an unhappy experience. For some, including myself at the moment, it’s a perfectly worthwhile and valid choice. Since coming out of my last relationship I’ve been hugely grateful for the freedom and autonomy that being single offers. It isn’t a sad or lonely experience, nor is it characterised by an increased appetite for casual sex with strangers. For me, being without a partner is an enriching and stress-free experience which offers a multitude of learning opportunities. And, most importantly, it’s exactly what I need right now.

And this isn’t to say that I don’t hope to one day meet someone who enjoys my company enough to want to share their life with me—being in a happy and healthy relationship would, of course, be lovely at some point. However, for the time being (and potentially for the rest of my life if this never happens) I’m perfectly content being single, getting to know myself, and learning to feel adequate and complete just as I am.

Should you happen to find yourself wondering whether your single friend or family member has found someone yet, I beg you to reconsider whether this is an important question to ask.

Does my Bum Look… Fashionable in This?

Photo credit: Liam Wilde via / CC BY-NC-SA
Photo credit: Liam Wilde via / CC BY-NC-SA

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but after many years of skinny ruling the roost in the fashion world, curvy is now creeping into the spotlight. And in many ways this is great. Having experienced being both at various stages of my life I’m the first person to advocate the respect and admiration of all body types. But wonderful and necessary as this growing appreciation for curvy is I can’t help thinking it’s a bit weird that body types, or anything to do with our bodies (don’t get me started on the bushy eyebrow thing!), can be ‘in fashion’ in the first place.

Being a fairly comfortable size 12 today, people are often surprised when I tell them that when I was 15 years old I weighed 15 stone. And, being pretty happy (mostly) with the way I am now, it’s disturbing for me to think about how much I hated my body back then. On boiling hot summer days I’d be covered from head to toe in black, not an inch of flesh visible besides my hands and face. Not even when I was sweating profusely would I feel confident enough to remove a few layers to cool myself down. Back then I would rather have jumped into a pit of spiders (my biggest fear) than show my legs or arms to anyone.

So, being fat was a pretty traumatic and uncomfortable experience for me when I was growing up. And despite being desperate to lose weight it wasn’t until years later that I started to shed the pounds and finally feel confident enough to expose certain parts of my body in public. Contrary to my expectation, though, losing weight didn’t eliminate all of my insecurities. Yes, I found clothes shopping easier and more enjoyable, and walking was more comfortable without my legs rubbing together. But I still had the same fear of showing my fully naked body (an insecurity which prevented me from losing my virginity until I was 22), and I still felt that I was less attractive than my friends. I thought that being slim would solve all of  my body issues. Little did I know they would never fully go away.

The biggest expectation I had at the time, though, was that if I lost weight I would be more attractive and sexually desirable. And I was right. I was. This was made clear by the sudden increase in attention that I started to receive. But what I wasn’t prepared for was the barrage of unwanted attention from strangers that being slim would also bring.

At one stage after dropping from a size 18-20 to a curvy 12-14, I actually found myself wishing I could put the weight back on so that I wouldn’t have to deal with the sleazy ogling that I increasingly found myself subject to. From walking down the street to standing at the bar waiting to be served, everywhere I went there was a creepy man either staring or making an uninvited comment about my body. Ever since I can remember the idea that’s been sold to me in magazines, in films and on TV is that slim people are happier, more attractive, and more successful than those who are not. At no point did I ever consider that being slim would make me feel anything other than beautiful and sexy. What actually happened was that I found myself feeling hugely self-conscious, aware that I was being looked at more frequently by a broader range of people, including other women, and not always in a respectful way. Of course, depending on who was looking, this attention was sometimes enjoyable. But for the most part it simply made me feel uncomfortable, anxious, and sometimes even frightened. This really wasn’t what I’d signed up for.

I thought that being slim would solve all of  my body issues. Little did I know, they would never fully go away.

Needless to say, any notions I’d once had about being happier if I lost weight quickly went out the window as I came to understand that being slim and being fat can both be problematic, although for different reasons. Being an insecure size 18-20 had protected me from a huge amount of the objectification that I came to despise when I was slim. But until I lost weight I had no idea how chronically invisible I’d been when I was bigger.

However, being someone who always feels slightly inadequate regardless of how big or small I am, I’ve come to realise that the invisibility I experienced wasn’t solely caused by other people’s judgements. I didn’t feel beautiful or sexy as a size 18-20 and so I covered my body and shrank into myself. Whilst I can’t deny that the images of tall, slinky women that I was bombarded with in the media didn’t encourage me to feel good about myself, I know now that most of what I felt about my body came as a result of my own preconceptions about beauty. I decided that I was ugly compared to everyone around me and this insecurity is what I projected to the outside world. I have met many women throughout my life who, although being what may be considered overweight, exude a level of confidence and self-acceptance that I can only dream of, even now as a size 12. And, conversely, I’ve also met many women who are slim who suffer with crippling insecurities about their appearance.

The body positive movement is a great step towards helping people to love their bodies regardless of size or shape. But as helpful and positive as it is are we still allowing external factors to dictate how feel about ourselves?

Regardless of the feminist campaign for body positivity, the success of the fashion industry relies on insecurity and it will always seek to make us feel bad about ourselves in one way or another. So whilst curves are finally receiving the appreciation they deserve this doesn’t mean that all of the lumps and bumps that tend to come along with being voluptuous will be viewed in a positive light, or that curves will be portrayed in the media any more respectfully and realistically than other body types have been. I can’t speak for everyone, but my curvy body has been far more sexualized and objectified than it has been respected.

It may be the case that the fashion industry is starting to appreciate diversity, and encourage the acceptance of fat bodies. But regardless of how ‘fashionable’ any body type is, insecurities can materialise as a result of many different experiences. What I’ve come to understand through my own journey is that self-acceptance is the key to confidence and contentment. Without finding validation and love inside of ourselves the respect we deserve from society will always be something that we’re fighting for. In the words of Gertrude Keazor – one of the wisest women I’ve had the pleasure of meeting in my adult life –  ‘As we embody from within, so the outside world will adjust.’